Zach McKelvie, 2nd Lieutenant of the United States Army, will report for duty one week from Friday at the training camp of the Boston Bruins of the National Hockey League.
How far McKelvie will be able to follow his NHL dream is another matter.
The 6-2, 190-pound defenseman signed a one-year contract with the Bruins in July after playing four seasons at West Point. "I just like Boston's style," he said. "Hard-nosed, up-tempo ... the way I love to play. I'm grateful the Bruins gave me this opportunity."
The 24-year-old McKelvie also has been granted approval by his commander in the U.S. Army to play one year of professional hockey. In West Point parlance, manning the blueline of the Bruins' minor league affiliate in Providence will be his "second job."
McKelvie's case appears to be an exception to the rule that has prevented former Army football player Caleb Campbell from pursuing an NFL career. Drafted last year in the seventh round by the Detroit Lions, the strong safety was initially cleared to play by the Army. The decision came as the new "Alternative Services" guideline was established for cadets with the potential to play pro sports:
"(Cadets) will owe two years of active service in the Army, during which time they will be allowed to play their sport in the player-development systems of their respective organizations and be assigned to recruiting stations. If they remain in professional sports following those two years, they will be provided the option of buying out the remaining three years of their active-duty commitment in exchange for six years of reserve time."However, the Army later suspended the rule -- saying it will revisit the matter at a later date -- and Campbell was held his commitment to the military until 2010. His shot at an NFL career diminished, Campbell is now satisfying his competitive spirit by attempting to land a spot on the U.S. Olympic bobsled team.
Despite several attempts for clarity on the difference in the McKelvie and Campbell cases, U.S. Army officials did not provide an official statement to FanHouse. Asked for his take, McKelvie -- who has met Campbell -- said, "I'm not totally sure, except I think our situations are viewed differently by the Army. I'm in West Point, Caleb is not. My commanding officer has given me clearance for this one year. For now, this is all I have for certain -- this one year. I hope over time the ruling is structured to benefit all of us with legitimate shots to make it in pro sports.
"Caleb and I understand this is not about individuals, but the greater good of the United States Armed Forces. Speaking for myself, my hockey career can be a chance to show America one of the many opportunities that come with service. The Army molded me into the player and the athlete I am now."
The uncertainty remains whether McKelvie will be able to play a second season in 2010-11. If he has to miss two years of high-level hockey, his pro career would be over. "I'll be honest with you," McKelvie said at his desk at West Point, where he is serving as an intern in the Athletic office. "I want to stay patient, I want to do what's best for the Army. I owe them so much and my loyalty is to them. But there are times I feel like I'm walking on eggshells."
Brian Riley is just the third Army hockey coach over the last 59 years. His predecessor at West Point was his older brother Rob. Before Rob, their father Jack was the Black Knights coach for 38 seasons. Brian understands the commitment cadets make to the Army, but believes top-tier athletes like McKelvie -- his captain, MVP and league all-star last season -- are among the best ambassadors for the armed forces.
"I want to stay patient, I want to do what's best for the Army. I owe them so much and my loyalty is to them. But there are times I feel like I'm walking on eggshells." "I could never find a better recruiter than Zack McKelvie," said Riley, entering his sixth season at Army. "When we have parents visit West Point with their sons, I have them sit down with Zach. Every time, the families talk about how impressive he was. I think about the reach Zach could have when he makes it in pro hockey. Look at the press coverage he could get in training camp and every city he goes to. I'm telling you, our hockey program and the Army could not have a better representative."
As head coach at Air Force, Frank Serratore saw too much of McKelvie on the opposition blue line over the four years. "He's a fierce competitor," said Serratore, "and an outstanding skater. Zach's a tough defenseman to forecheck, and his quick feet enable him to make strong plays at both ends of the ice. He has this strong presence as a player and a leader -- so strong I could see it from the other bench."
The Air Force coach has a vested interest in whether McKelvie sees his on-ice development to its conclusion without interruption. "I believe the Armed Forces would be well-served to give major league prospects the flexibility to pursue their careers," said Serratore. "I want to be clear here: no one wants a mass exodus of servicemen leaving to try out for sports teams. Those with clear-cut top potential can be identified and be given the chance. In the end, I don't think there's any question we would see a positive effect on enrollment in the service academies."
Asked how his time at West Point changed him, McKelvie said, "Before I came here, I was not the most confident kid. My years here transformed me and shaped my value systems. When I spoke with scouts from some of the NHL teams, they said my character was one of the reasons they liked me. A big piece of that comes from the Army."
Told his response sounded like an effective pitch for the Army, McKelvie let out a small laugh and wondered about the impact of getting on a bigger stage. "The military spends millions of dollars sponsoring NASCAR, the NHL and other major sports," he said. "I would be proud to represent the Army as a pro athlete and share my story with anyone who will listen. If my orders change, I will never disobey the Army or dishonor my commitment. But maybe I can be a real-life advertisement for the education I received at West Point."
McKelvie's story only has an effect, of course, if he progresses as a strong NHL prospect. While the defenseman is without question an underdog -- think Rudy meets An Officer and a Gentleman -- it's impossible to find anyone betting against him.
FanHouse contacted a scout for one of the NHL teams that bid with Boston for McKelvie's services. His scouting report:
"One of the best skaters in college hockey. He won the NCAA Fastest Skater competition at the 2009 Frozen Four skills challenge. He is already fairly solid, but now that he'll be out of West Point I can see him playing at 205-210 pounds. He excels one-on-one down low and has a good, active stick. To succeed at the pro level, he'll have to work on his vision and his pace."
The high intensity style he loves about the Bruins will also be his biggest challenge. McKelvie understands there will be an adjustment period from the NCAA's Atlantic Hockey Association to the American Hockey League -- considered by many in hockey to be the second-best league in the world. "I'll be putting in a lot of extra work," said McKelvie, still recovering from a shoulder injury that may hamper his ability to participate in every drill at the start of Bruins camp.
"When our team needed a lift, he'd fight the other team's big guy," recalled LaFontaine, the brother of Hall of Fame center Pat LaFontaine and today the athletic director at Shattuck St. Mary's School in Minnesota. "When we needed a boost, he'd make a big hit. He's the ultimate team guy who has the toughness and the skill to back up everything he says in the locker room."
Starting next week, McKelvie gets his chance of a lifetime. "I may be a bit of a late-bloomer, but the NHL dream has been there since I was a little kid," he said. He played on makeshift outdoor rinks in New Brighton, Minnesota -- "for the Stanley Cup, of course" -- with his brothers: twin Chris, entering his senior year at Bemidji State ("NHL speed," says LaFontaine) and older brother Ryan, who played at Minnesota State, Mankato, and now is an associate coach in the North American Hockey League. Their grandfather Joseph was raised in hockey-obsessed Ontario and served for the Canadian Army in World War II.
"Playing hockey," said Zach McKelvie, "is what my brothers and I were born to do. I'm grateful for the year I have in the Bruins organization and we'll see what happens after that. For now, I'm approaching it as a chance to chase a dream and honor my family and my country."